Gray October, and a cool mist-rain is being wrung from the clouds; the legendary seasonal sparkle that shoots color into the sky is absent. It is a perfect day for running, however, and I go slap-footing along the tarmac on the way to the woods.
The trail that runs out to Fairhaven Bay ambles through high white pines and a mix of oaks, maples and beech trees. Today, its packed dirt is water-dark, and under the shroud of the forest canopy, I enter a world of half-light. It is either dawn or dusk; I’ve run to an all-day margin of light along the river’s edge. I bend my concentration to picking out roots and stones poking through the litter of pine needles and fallen leaves. Such fall running over cloaked ground invites a fall.
All runners know that a tense upper body produces a lurching franken-gait in the legs; the whole enterprise of moving forward tends toward stumble. I wonder if I should be here.
That’s when it happens: the speckle of dropped leaves begins to glow, especially the yellow ones. It is as if I am running over the pelt of a huge leopard, albeit one where the spots are the light instead of the darkness. The gray above and around me intensifies, and the ground pulses with light, and along that ground everything is evident. I feel that some kindly custodian of the woods has switched on the footlights. My shoulders relax, and my stiffening neck straightens; my hands, which had been lifted, ready for an imagined tumble, drop too and begin to swing in rhythm with my feet. And with rhythm comes reverie, a rivery feeling of ease and good will and attention. I am paying attention without having to work at it because I am seeing each lit leaf.
I am running simply simply running;
each leaf is glowing simply simply glowing.
Last Tuesday evening we walked to Concord’s First Parish church to hear writer Robert Richardson and painter Lincoln Perry speak about their collaboration on a new edition of Henry Thoreau’s late-life essay, October or Autumnal Tints. The book is its own excursion of beauty, its writing and watercolors both transcendent. And it is a convenient size for carrying out into the woods, an idea implicitly encouraged by a final section called “Personal Leaves”: “We have left room for a few leaves of your own choosing,” they write, and instructions for preserving those leaves follow.
What caught my attention as Richardson read from his accompanying essay that evening was Thoreau saying this: “We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads, and then we can hardly see anything else.”
Each yellow leaf. As I run in the dark woods, I can hardly see anything else.
A little later in his essay Richardson writes, “Absolute attention is prayer, said Simone Weil. Thoreau would have understood.”
Note: Richardson and Perry’s edition of October or Autumnal Tints is published by W.W. Norton and available at the Concord Bookshop, The Thoreau Society’s Shop at Walden Pond and elsewhere. It is a perfect seasonal companion.